On Tuesday, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) welcomed its new director Christina Olsen to Williamstown for her first day on the job. Olsen was hired in January and spent the last few months finishing her position as the director of education and public programs at the Portland Art Museum.
Olsen’s interest in art began in her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago. She later earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on secular art of the Italian Renaissance, particularly in Northern Italy. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Carte da Trionfi: The Development of Tarot in 15th-Century Italy,” investigated the roots of the tarot card deck in the leisure practices of the Italian courts.
Olsen’s interest in museums, however, was sparked by her first position as a volunteer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She described this role as enlightening because it was at a point in time in the mid-’90s when technology as we know it today was in its infancy. Olsen worked in a media lab where she considered the implications of new technology on the museum world.
“[The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] was one of the first museums to think about technology in a serious way,” Olsen said.
“I suddenly understood that these new technologies had incredible possibilities for changing how people made, conceived and accessed art. That volunteer job in San Francisco was really when I began to fall in love with museums,” she continued.
After San Francisco, Olsen served at the Getty Foundation, the Getty Museum and in Portland, Ore., before attaining her position at WCMA this winter.
“I’ve always thought that college and university art museums are lucky,” Olsen said. “With students as your primary public, you get to work very collaboratively with the people who are also your public.”
She explained that college art museums have the unique opportunity to be “intensely experimental. There can be real experimentation of museum practice,” Olsen said.
Olsen also spoke passionately about the assets of WCMA’s physical location. “I really like that it is literally on campus and on the main public road,” Olsen said. “College art museums are a hinge between public life and academic life, and students and faculty get to experience what it is to be deeply involved with a public institution.”
Though she is just getting to know Williamstown, Olsen has already made herself familiar with the museum and its practices. “I love the collection,” she said. “There are some drop-dead beautiful pieces that I think should be open to interpretation. Interpretation is something that museums should make available to students and faculty in a serious way.”
Olsen also described her aspirations for WCMA in the future. She would like to make the museum a “vital part of campus life” and have all students feel like they have personal ownership of the collection. “In an ideal situation everyone would graduate from Williams with a knowledge of the collection,” she said.
In order for this to be accomplished, Olsen believes that WCMA must be utilized by all of the disciplines. “It’s incredibly important for the disciplines to speak and interact [with one another],” Olsen said. “I think that there is untapped potential to the relevancy of visual arts in many different disciplines.”
Olsen also opined that the visual skills learned in a museum, like being able to analyze and critique visual mediums, are becoming more and more essential in the world in which we live.
In general, Olsen said that she would like the museum to be more visible at the College. While she has no specific plans or exhibitions in mind, Olsen said that she would like to better integrate the museum into student and faculty daily life, make better use of technology and partner strategically with the other local museums.
“I would like to figure out what our role is in this triptych [WCMA, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and MASS MoCA] and make the most of it. We need to make use of what they are doing and carve out what we are doing ourselves,” Olsen said.